IN THE 12TH century, the area of the Bathgate Hills, now West Lothian County Council's successful country park, was the ancestral domain of that branch of the Aitken clan that was to produce Lord Beaverbrook, and was considered a spiritual slum. Even today, it is dominated by the five hillocks that we all call the Devil's Knuckles; and over a local precipice were thrown wretched women brutally executed for alleged witchcraft. So the Order of Knights Templars came evangelising to the village of Torphichen and constructed their quahair, or fortified church. It was some 700 years later to this parish and this ancient but rather dilapidated house of god that P. Hugh R. Mackay was inducted in 1927, and which he was to serve as minister for 32 highly productive years.
He caused the quahair to be repaired physically and served God in many ways as energetically as the most demanding of Knights Templars would have wished, inspiring his congregation. In 1947 it was Mackay who restarted the Ancient Order of St John, with the Duke of Gloucester as Grand Prior, and turned it in to the philanthropical society which helps well-deserving causes particularly the physically handicapped. One of my memories of Hugh Mackay is his wonderful sermons at the annual gathering on 24 June each year at Torphichen of the present-day Knights, who were mostly businessmen able to help those less fortunate than themselves. In 1987 he was invested with the insignia of office as a Sub-Prelate of the order.
Born in 1901 in Tranent, one of the three sons and three daughters of the minister at Prestonpans, Hugh Mackay attended George Watson's School in Edinburgh during the First World War. It was here that he heard that both his elder brothers, Ian and Mark, who were training for the ministry, had been killed within weeks of each other at the Somme, Ian dying immediately and Mark of wounds, in 1917. To the enormous delight of his mourning father and mother, Mackay, after taking a good degree at Edinburgh University, trained for the ministry, as his brothers had been in the process of doing, at New College in Edinburgh.
In 1927 he was chosen as the Free Church minister in Torphichen but such was his welcome and the good impression that he made that the Church of Scotland members in the village took the then unusual step of uniting congregations with the Free Church, choosing Mackay as their minister. He became an active member of West Lothian County Council for a quarter of a century and he was never opposed at council elections. I recollect in the middle 1950s somebody at a Labour Party meeting suggesting that the party ought to contest every seat and finding that the then all-powerful party agent Jimmy Boyle slapped them down with the tart comment that the Minister Mackay had to be independent, and anyway he was an asset to the council. The foundation for such a remark was the excellent youth work which he did locally and his speeches in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on behalf of handicapped youth before they became a fashionable cause.
Mackay ran the Sea Scouts on the Edinburgh Glasgow Union canal for 30 years. As one of his early teenage scouts I can say that he was marvellous with all of us, especially the difficult boys and knitted together lads from all kinds of backgrounds. He taught us never to complain. And when any of us got into a scrap and ran to him he would tell us to go back, have another fight, shake hands and come back to him without tears or complaint. A spot of blood around the nose did not matter. It was a useful lesson.
However, if anybody got into real difficulty no man could have been kinder, and he was the founder of the Seagull Trust, which goes from strength to strength doing canal cruises for old people and handicapped young people. It was for this work that he was appointed MBE in 1958.
One of my memories of Mackay will be his standing on Cairnpapple Hill to the north of Bathgate and lecturing groups of visitors on what Historic Scotland now recognise as the most important single Bronze Age site in their possession on the Scottish mainland. He was a distinguished antiquarian.
To widespread surprise and delight in West Lothian, Mackay married for the first time at the age of 59. He was to have an extraordinarily happy marriage with Jean Thom. Sensibly and rightly she insisted on moving from a parish where he had been a popular bachelor minister and they made their home in Aberdeenshire, taking charge of the linked parishes of Prenmay and Leslie. People from the north-east of Scotland assured us that he was as full of good works and as popular as he had been in the central belt. In retirement Mackay did a PhD, taking as his subject the Five Articles of Perth in the context of Scottish church history. His last years were clouded by blindness but he leaves behind a great many boys, including me, who will forever be grateful for the way in which he helped to make men of us.
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